Home MTA Economics After Sandy, steep costs and a transit wishlist

After Sandy, steep costs and a transit wishlist

by Benjamin Kabak

According to Governor Cuomo, it may cost up to $600 million to repair the South Ferry-Whitehall St. subway station. (Photo MTA New York City Transit / David Henly)

It’s been four weeks since Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City, and the storm and its aftermath has been our main focus since then. Fare hike hearings have become an afterthought for the MTA as storm clean-up and repairs have become the authority’s top priorities. Monday marked the first MTA Board committee meetings since the storm, and now the costs of the cleanup are coming into focus.

As the Board met — and more on that shortly — Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed the state’s needs with its Congressional delegation. The price tags are steep. Overall, Cuomo believes New York needs $32 billion to recover from the damage inflicted by Sandy, and the MTA’s needs are considerable. Cuomo in a summary (pdf) noted that the MTA needs over $5 billion for repair work. As a comparison, one year of the MTA’s capital plan is also around $5 billion. The damage, clearly, was extensive.

“The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy is of unprecedented proportions, ranking among the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history in terms of loss of life, property damage, and economic impact,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “Today’s meeting with our state’s Congressional delegation builds upon the close cooperation between local, state, and federal partners that has existed throughout Hurricane Sandy and in the storm’s aftermath. Working together, we will rebuild stronger and better than ever before, so New York State is better prepared and has the infrastructure in place to handle future major weather incidents.”

The specifics of the destruction are tough to come by, but some early estimates are leaking out. Thomas Kaplan of The Times tweeted:

That’s a mind-boggling figure consider that the new South Ferry-Whitehall Street station opened three years ago and cost $530 million then. Kaplan later said the Governor’s Office confirmed that this line item was simply for the station and not, say, for the damage caused to the Montague St. Tunnel as well. In a statement to me, on Monday afternoon, though, the MTA said they “cannot confirm at this time” that the $600 million figure is a correct or final one. Still, repairs will not be cheap.

Also in Cuomo’s budget was a request for nearly $9 billion in prevention and mitigation investment projects. That’s a comforting request, but it’s probably not enough. During those Monday committee meetings, New York City Transit President Thomas Prendergast spoke at length about Transit’s needs and desires. In a PDF, he put forward his agency’s non-exhaustive wishlist for investment improvements. These run the gamut from stair and vent closures to elevator hardening to bladders or floodgates and “pre-engineering and site mobilization for temporary mitigation structures.” At the very least, Transit needs more than three pump trains, power redundancy systems and significant protection for its low-lying depots and vulnerable signal and communications equipment. None of this will be cheap.

Meanwhile, in addition to mitigation costs, the long-term outlook is bleak, and the MTA will have to accelerate its component replacement program. As Prendergast’s presentation noted, “general failure rates are expected to accelerate in system elements that experienced flooding.” These elements include electrical equipment, cable sheathings and even track beds that were inundated with garbage from the storm run-off. It was a mess.

So right now, it’s unclear how much money will flow our way and when. The MTA said on Monday that the R train will soon run to Whitehall and back through the Montague St. Tunnel to Brooklyn. J and Z trains will again reach Broad St. within the next week or two as well. But the outlook for that South Ferry-Whitehall St. station is hazy. The 1 trains will be turning through the old South Ferry loop for the foreseeable future, and the Whitehall St. station won’t take passengers until significant station repairs are completed. The Broad Channel washout too will take months to repair.

With these clean-up efforts under way and the monetary requests in place, we simply play the political waiting game. Despite astronomical cost projections, the MTA has a sense of what it needs to do to protect its infrastructure. Will Congress respond before the next storm hits? That’s a question perhaps better left unanswered as we hope for the best.

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Phantom November 27, 2012 - 3:12 am

If the cost of rebuilding the station is $600 million, then it should not be rebuilt.

And I say this as one who often uses the station.

At some point, one must say ” no ”

Esp as noone sticks to a budget in NYC and it will cost more than this.

BBnet3000 November 27, 2012 - 7:08 am

I dont understand how the amount could possibly be more (or the same as) building the station in the first place. Hopefully this figure turns out to be bogus.

Bolwerk November 27, 2012 - 3:06 pm

A priceless art display. Silver tracks. A Fortress of Solitude-esque flood wall around it. Gold tiles and bricks, held together by a mortar of ground up ivory cemented using semen extracted from any highly endangered Australian reptiles you can think of.

I really don’t see why $600M is so hard to achieve. Why not $800M?

Marc Shepherd November 27, 2012 - 7:57 am

It’s rather ironic that the 100+ year old loop station is still functional, while the bright sparkly new one, opened just a couple of years ago, is basically destroyed.

I don’t know if the $600 million repair estimate is accurate, but I assume it’s for more than just re-building it exactly as it was, which would be the height of stupidity. I mean, what if it floods again next year?

So get over it. There’s no way they would leave South Ferry permanently without a station. Obviously construction of the new station was not the MTA’s finest hour: even before Sandy, it was already showing severe water damage. Let’s spend what it takes to get it right this time.

TP November 27, 2012 - 9:50 am

Don’t discount politics. Staten Islanders are really pissed about the loss of South Ferry, and Staten Islanders are a really important political constituency. They lean Republican and they vote.

Eric F November 27, 2012 - 11:25 am

If they lean Republican, aren’t they a really unimportant constituency? There are 51 members of the city council. Four of them are Republican.

Bolwerk November 27, 2012 - 3:14 pm

Not really. The City Council is also pretty powerless when it comes to transit issues.

The State Senate is not, however. And it’s probably the most likely body to flip one way or another in the foreseeable future. So you can safely expect to see both parties pandering to Staten Island at the expense of the rest of the city and state.

lcsa99 November 27, 2012 - 1:23 pm

Oh please. Staten Islanders are forgotten. The only reason they received any attention is because we finally spoke up. As long as the voters living in Manhattan are happy, they will push back the repairs to the station as long as they can. And articles like this just feel like proof. This will be an excuse for not working harder to re-open.

Bolwerk November 27, 2012 - 3:19 pm

I think there is probably something very wrong with that $600M number, but I think it’s a no-brainer to spend money so we get the most bang for our buck. That probably means putting out some cheaper fires than South Ferry first. It sucks, but there are some other subway stations within walking distance. And buses.

And, at some point, SIers have to accept that their isolation means some disadvantages.

John-2 November 27, 2012 - 8:46 am

It sounds as if the $600 million figure includes a little bit of “wish list” money — i.e. not just repairing the damage to the station, but correcting the construction defects that showed up over the three years prior to Sandy’s arrival. The leaks and rust-and-other-brown-stained-walls already were a public relations embarrassment for the MTA due to improper waterproofing.

My guess is whoever drew up the cost estimate to fix the station included not just repairs to the salt-water damaged parts, but going in and doing the waterproofing over again as part of the repair plans. It’s not such a dumb idea if that’s the case, but it kind of sidesteps the problem of why it was allowed to happen in the first place (a problem Schiavone Construction has yet to answer), and when the reconstruction costs come in over 10 percent above the cost to built the new SF station in the first place, it’s no shock that even the New York Times’ excessive government spending alarms would go off on this budget item.

Eric F November 27, 2012 - 11:30 am

That’s probably right, but as long as you are rebuilding, you may as well correct earlier flaws and harden the station, rather than rebuild exactly what you had.

My memory of the project was that there were overruns, but also that it just took forever for both that project and the ferry terminal to be completed. There was construction activity at the ferry site in the late 90s, and it muse have taken 10 years to wrap up.

John-2 November 27, 2012 - 2:40 pm

One of the past complaints about the old SF entrance was it was not connected to the ferry terminal. The 1990s-era rebuild of the terminal expanded it to the west, so that you now could walk directly into the SF station without going outside. But when they built the new station with the connection to the R’s Whitehall Street station, they restored the old problem, in that the entrance once again is outside the ferry terminal (albeit with a covered walkway).

The other thing, aside from Sandy absolving Schiavone Construction from any liability over the leaks in the original project, is that if the MTA is taking $600 million in repairs, that’s not a two-week, or even a six-month job like fixing the Jamaica Bay trestle — for that amount of cash, we’re probably talking late 2014 at the earliest the lower SF station would reopen, and more likely, sometime around when East Side Access to Grand Central finally opens up. If that’s the case, they really do need to think about putting the signals back in the loop and the moving platforms back on the curve (and reopening the entrance to old South Ferry inside the terminal until the repair work is done).

Kvnbklyn November 27, 2012 - 8:57 am

I wonder how much of this is fixing Sandy damage and how much is fixing the original poor construction.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines November 27, 2012 - 8:59 am

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Larry Littlefield November 27, 2012 - 9:04 am

They should just do what they should have done to begin with.

Live with the loop at South Ferry, and the platform extenders. But extend the platform northward so the doors on the whole train can open. THAT wouldn’t have cost $530 million then, and won’t cost $600 million now.

They did that stupid station, which actually reduced capacity on the #1 line, because a few affluent NIMBY’s objected to trees being taken down and replanted. Guess what? Trees eventually come down and are replaced, whether a station is built or not.

Freaking Pataki.

Eric F November 27, 2012 - 9:37 am

That’s going to require one heck of a tax hike to pay for.

$600 million! So, everyone who Monday morning quarterbacked NJT’s rail fleet damage, which will cost way less to repair, how do we feel about the MTA taking a zillion years to build a new station in Flood Zone A and not hardening it against flooding?

lawhawk November 27, 2012 - 10:40 am

For one thing, the NJT mess with its rail fleet impacts several hundred thousand people per day. South Ferry has an average ridership of about ~30k.

With 30% of its rail fleet damaged or otherwise incapacitated, those riders are affecting bus riders as well – a spillover effect that translates into huge problems for all of NJ. Losing South Ferry for an extended period is a problem, but not nearly as much as say losing the Montague street tunnel for an extended period.

Moreover, you can move the NJT rail fleet out of harms way. You can’t simply move South Ferry to some other location. NJT didn’t move its fleet and it was inundated as a result.

The South Ferry design didn’t take into account flooding, despite its proximity to the Battery and being in Zone A, but that’s something that plagues much of the subway system that was conceived before the Zone system was initiated. Any rebuilding should include methods to reduce flooding risks – whether it’s flood gates at entrances or finding ways to secure ventilation shafts. And those changes should migrate to other areas of the MTA system that are in flood zones.

Yet, I agree that something seems fishy about the reconstruction costs for the repairs exceeding the initial construction costs. It’s not as though they have to excavate the tunnels from scratch, unless those additional costs are to make the station flood-resistant.

Eric F November 27, 2012 - 11:35 am

I know it’s not the same. It’s a slender reed, but I’ll cling to it just the same.

NJT parked it’s trains in a legacy asset. The South Ferry Station was designed post-global warming scare from the ground up. Just sayin.

By the way, NJT’s rolling stock losses don’t seem to be affecting its schedule. Maybe the trains are shorter and more crowded, I don’t know, but any loss of actual scheduled movements seems to be caused by line damage and not due to damage to cars and locos.

Alon Levy November 27, 2012 - 11:08 am

Serious answer: the US is terrible at everything related to transit, but new infrastructure construction is especially expensive across the board. For example, operating costs in New York are about 20% higher than in Paris, while subway construction costs are on the order of 500% higher. NJ Transit’s problem is then a matter of operations: it didn’t park its trains on high ground; the cost is rolling stock refurbishment and acquisition, which at NJ Transit costs more than in France but to the tune of 50-100% rather than 500%. In contrast, NYCT’s South Ferry problem is a matter of capital construction. If NJ Transit had a piece of infrastructure equivalent to South Ferry in location, it would’ve also had to spend hundreds of millions on restoring it.

Eric F November 27, 2012 - 11:43 am

I was a bit concerned that the construction recession would start to bite a bit in the next couple of years. Much of the lower Manhattan work at the ground zero projects and Fulton Center will start to burn off in 2014. The Turnpike has a big project wrapping up in 2014 as well and the 7 Train extension should be done at that point. But lo and behold, we have another $600 million in contracts in the offing just from one piece of rehab work alone.

Bolwerk November 27, 2012 - 3:35 pm

Are you still butthert about NJT being called out for its incompetency? Sheesh.

Yes, the MTA did something moronic too. Quelle surprise. It might have been more moronic, in a way, since there was time to see that something like this was going to come some decade soon.

Nick Ober November 27, 2012 - 10:07 am

Larry, could you elaborate further on why the new South Ferry station is deficient capacity-wise?

Larry Littlefield November 27, 2012 - 10:49 am

There was no room for tail tracks — the station went right up to the harbor. And limits capacity to 20 tph. Which is what was being run, so I guess you can’t say it’s deficient. But that doesn’t leave any room for an increase on the #1 line. The loop terminal had higher capacity.

The MTA wanted to eliminate the loop, and the extra manning and maintenance that went with it. Otherwise, they could just have extended the platform northward to accomodate a 10-car train (eliminating the problem with only being able to enter and exit half the cars), and rehabbed the station. That’s what I would have done. Cheap and fast, though platform extenders would have to been manned and used indefinately. It was not one of the alternatives discussed.

Instead the MTA proposed to move the entire station north of the loop, for a straight platform. It would have required removing and replacing trees in Battery Park, which is NOT within the original shorline of Manhattan, so those were not ancient trees.

But the NIMBY’s said “boo” with regard to the trees. And every time someone says “boo” to the beat up MTA, if borrowing more money is a possible solution, that’s what it does. It spent VASTLY more money to put the station UNDER the loop and right up to the harbor.

Eric F November 27, 2012 - 11:40 am

Could the old station have been rehabbed with ADA accessibility? That was probably a big cost driver. The new digs also has easier transfers to the yellow trains and the ferry I think. But what a price!

Larry Littlefield November 27, 2012 - 12:32 pm

No doubt elevators would have been required, but the platform would have been closer to the surface.

I wouldn’t claim that extending a platform, adding a transfer, and adding an elevator costs nothing after what happened at Bleeker Street. But it should have been cheaper in a park.

Maybe Sandy blew down the damn trees and they can do the easier improvement now.

John-2 November 27, 2012 - 3:04 pm

Fare control for old South Ferry was at street level — both before and after the entrance was moved inside the ferry terminal — and you had the two sets of stairs going down to the platform. So ADA would have required the area behind the turnstiles be expanded and an area built where the elevator could be placed away from the stairs. Would have required a little doing, but probably a few bucks under the $530-million-plus the entirely new station required.

BBnet3000 November 27, 2012 - 11:20 am

Something I got to thinking about at the Social Media panel this morning (great talk btw Ben) is, were other stations flooded just as badly as South Ferry? Wasnt Whitehall on the R flooded to the ceiling as well? Obviously that isnt open yet, but I havent heard that it will be delayed beyond the opening of the Montague tunnel.

Was Bowling Green flooded as well? Plus the PATH stations?

Im wondering because if these other stations were flooded and able to reopen, then theres a bigger design issue with South Ferry than just the fact that its in Zone A and has no provision against being flooded in the first place.

boerumhillscott November 27, 2012 - 11:46 am

Whitehall was not flooded to the ceiling, and in fact I don’t think it had any standing water in it.
The water flowed through it and down into the tunnels (wich did flood to the ceiling), like it did at most other flooded stations.

The problem with South Ferry is that it is the lowest point on the line, with no lower tunnel for the water to flow into.

Larry Littlefield November 27, 2012 - 12:34 pm

The tunnels acted as dry wells. It was a happy accident. It should be part of the plan.

The tunnels should not be plugged. The electrical and the electronic equipment in the tunnels should be either made more waterproof or easier to replace. And the plug should protect the land-side interlockings.

John-2 November 27, 2012 - 3:13 pm

The (expensive) irony is that in-between the old South Ferry station one level below ground and the deep cavern station four levels down are the Joralemon Street Tunnels for the 4/5 trains. So the muck and mess from the flooding in the dead-end station, which went all the way up to the fare control area above the IRT tunnels to Brooklyn.

So while Joralemon was the first East River tunnel put back into service and is now carrying it’s normal load plus much of the Montague tunnel’s traffic, the flood damage both below and above those tunnels at SF is so bad the MTA’s looking at over half a billion to fix the station and (probably) fix the flaws in the original design.

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